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Reagan Ray is the lead designer and resident illustrator for Paravel.

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Interview

Jonathan Moore

April 18, 2011

Tell us about your background. Where did you get your start and how did you develop such a broad skill-set?

In 1998 I started a full-time internship at a large church in Dallas, Texas working with junior and high school students. During one of our weekly meetings someone asked for a volunteer to work on a design for a new flyer. I raised my hand for the project knowing absolutely nothing about design. After sitting down and getting no where with Microsoft Publisher 97, one of the in-house designers introduced me to Photoshop 4.0 which changed everything for me. I remember staying up at night working my way through every tutorial in The Photoshop 4 Wow! Book full of chrome text effects and beveled shapes. The design I created wasn’t stellar, but through the process I fell in love with design.

Every time a new project came up I continued to raise my hand taking on the challenge. Even though I had no clue what I was doing, I was willing to learn. The first flyer led to more flyers, posters, video graphics, and eventually designing and building the church’s first web site in 1999. Shortly after, I was hired at the church as one of the full time youth pastors. Between speaking every week, summer camps, and conferences I would find every opportunity to hone in my design ability and learn new skills.

As I spent more time with design I realized that it was time to switch directions and pursue a career in design. During mid-2001, as an entry-level designer with little experience, no design education, after the post dot-com bubble, it hit me wasn’t an ideal time to look for a job. After sending out my 50th resume, a family friend asked me if I was interested in taking on a freelance project for a small Flash site. One project led to another and soon I abandoned the job search.

Over the course of three years freelancing, I took on absolutely every project I came across even if it was something I had never done before. “Can you do print design?” “Sure!” · “How about helping us design our trade-show booth?” “Sounds like fun!” · “We need a Flash site for our band. Can you do it?” “I’m on it!” · “Our minor league hockey team needs you to design, build and develop a ColdFusion CMS. Are you up for it?” “Um... ColdFusion? Yes. I’ll figure it out!” My wife still laughs about walking into my office after taking on a client and seeing me with a new book open to Chapter 01 as I sweat my way through the project to hit all the deadlines. Partially I felt the need to take on every project to provide for my family, but mostly I loved the challenge of stretching myself.

In addition to mountain of books that I worked my way through I spent a lot of time on a number of the design and Flash communities—Ultrashock, Dreamless.org, K10k, FlashKit, and others. Through Ultrashock I got to know Shane Mielke who works at 2Advanced Studios. Over an IM conversation he suggested, “You should send in your portfolio. What could it hurt?”. Six weeks later in 2004 my wife and I moved to southern California after accepting a job at 2Advanced as a designer.

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Just the process of being offered a job at 2Advanced was quite surreal as they were one of the studios that inspired me to peruse web design. During the four amazing years that I worked there, the height of the Flash-era, I was able to expand my skill-set even wider. There was a freedom at the studio that allowed you to carry a project through every phase—design, animation, 3d, ActionScript, and front-end development—a lot of the times solo or as a part of a small team.

Naturally I continued with what I knew best, raising my hand and volunteering myself for every project possible, even if I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. As a result I quickly moved into a senior art director role and was lucky to work with a ton of amazing clients and an extremely talented team that became a family for the years that I was there.

While having a broad range of skills has it’s benefits, some people suffer from the “jack of all trades, master of none” syndrome. Is this something you struggle with? Are you able to balance out and avoid your skill-set from growing stale?

I think that the key to not suffering as a “jack of all trades” is to be be honest to yourself about what your true strengths and weaknesses are. Today I only focus on a handful of skills, freeing up my time to plan what’s next for New Ezra and Style Hatch. I now know when it is best to hire experts to cover my weak areas, allowing me to spend most of my time on my strong areas.

I can remember projects earlier on when I was too ambitious trying to cover everything single-handed—design, animation, video, Flash, ActionScript, front-end and a basic CMS. In the end I was able to pull it off, but I know that the project was a fraction of what it could have been if I would have built the right team from the beginning. Plus it could have been done without the all-nighters and hours on the weekends, which I avoid at all cost now.

Somewhere in recently history the quote from the 1600s about a “jack of all trades” was shortened from it’s original form. "Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one." For designers getting started in the digital industry I personally believe that one of the best things they can do for their career is to pick up as many skills as possible. Learn all aspects of how to design, build, and communicate your ideas with clients and others. This will open up opportunities as you progress in your career and give you the flexibility to evolve as your role or the industry changes.

Over time you can begin to narrow the skill set that you primarily work with based on what you love to do. Even if you allow some of your skills to grow stale you will always be able to see exactly how a design or idea could be brought to life with the right team. Plus, if you decide later on to pick up an old skill you’re halfway there to being proficient at it again.

You mentioned Style Hatch, which is your company that specializes in premium Tumblr themes. Why did you get into theme design and development? How has the transition been from servicing clients to supporting customers?

After working several years at 2Advanced and BLITZ I decided it was the right time to go independent as a creative director and start New Ezra in January 2009. I was fortunate to have a steady stream of clients, working with Microsoft, Volcom, UFC, Armor Games and others. In early 2010 had just wrapped up several large projects, and I was looking for a break from client work. Around the same time I was invited by Tumblr to submit a theme on their new premium theme marketplace. Since I had been using the Tumblr for years it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do something a bit different that I could have complete creative control over. Plus, it gave me an opportunity to get back into front-end development.

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After launching several of the themes I realized that adding this extra source of revenue really change the dynamics of New Ezra. It allowed me to be far more selective about the type of clients and projects that I was willing take on. On the other side the time required each day to answer all the customer support emails, tweets and comments began to increase. I decided take a risk and completely switch my focus from client work to creating more digital goods under Style Hatch.

With most client projects there is a big push to finish up the design and development, and unless you have future phases your work is usually done once the site goes live. Launching a product for customers requires the same amount of work leading up to the launch, but once it goes live the real work begins. Now most days I spend 2-3 hours answering emails and taking time to thank people who have purchased the themes. All of the work that goes into support and updates to the themes does take a lot of time but it has by far made the largest impact on Style Hatch’s success.

The next step for Style Hatch is to evolve to new platforms and expand the types of digital goods we’re offering. Also, I’m really excited about a partnership that we’re working on with a non-profit organization to give back some of the revenue to fund education and micro-enterprise projects in developing countries. As the New Ezra team grows the goal is to launch other brands and projects like Style Hatch.

As designers we live in an exciting time. Across the industry there is a growing trend of designers transitioning from client work to follow their passion by launch their own products or services. For just a few of the examples look at Drew Wilson with Pictos and Valio Conference, Jeff Sheldon with Ugmonk, Cameron Moll with Authentic Jobs, and many others. You might be surprised at how fast a simple or even an ‘already done’ idea takes off.

Explain how you get a new design started. Do you sketch out ideas, jump directly into Photoshop, or start with CSS and HTML?

I love the idea of starting out a new design by sketching it out in a notebook or wire framing the page. After a number of attempts to take a more planned approach to design I finally gave in to what works best for me, going straight to Photoshop.

Before I begin to concept designs in Photoshop, I always spend a lot of time in the discovery (insight through research rather than just client input) and strategy (defining real objectives not deliverables) stage of a project. Many designers often let the client or even others in their studio/agency take care of these phases, but as a designer this is often where you can contribute the most value to a client or project. The process of going through these phases will not only make your job of solving problems with design easier, the insight you learn will help you to present and win your client over with the design concept.

Once I’m in Photoshop I usually open up a new 800x800 document and create a rough style guide with combinations of typography, color palettes, various design elements and images that will influence the design direction. As the design progresses, often it moves away from the style guide, but it at least gives me the ability to form what the design style will be before I start tackling the UX. It is tempting to get carried away and spend a lot of time experimenting with styles, but I try to limit this phase to 30 - 45 minutes.

Next I create another document for the actual site design at 1440x980 (it usually grows in height over time). At this step I will quickly block out all the UX elements and begin to fill in the page with real text, never lorum ipsum. I know the text will eventually change, but this helps me have a good of how content will actually look when it goes live. Using readable and ‘for placement only’ (FPO) text helps you to avoid situations where your design assumes that the client will only use one or two line titles or small chunks of text. At this point my designs look somewhat like a well refined wire frame.

Once everything is blocked out on the page I’ll go through the design and apply all the various design elements from the style guide. Even at this stage I try to keep the time spent at a minimum knowing that at the end I’ll spend a lot of time perfecting the details. After the blocked out elements, UX and styles have been combined I find that it’s helpful to get up and take a break away from the computer. Grab lunch, go outside, sleep on it, anything just give you a fresh perspective when you go back to the design.

For the final phase I’ll come back to the design, and this is where I spend a lot of time fine tuning the style, UX elements, and details. For me this refining process is where the design begins to come to life. The details phase is also where I have the most fun with the design and spin off multiple variations to present. It’s often the last 5% of a design that separates a good design from a great design.

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Early on in my career (and even occasionally even now) I struggled with insecurity in my design ability which lead to hours of “searching for inspiration” and taking too much time to make design decisions. I find that breaking up the design process into multiple passes gives me the snowball effect of moving forward without constantly second guessing my ability. Forcing yourself to spend as little time as possible on the style guide, blocking and styling phase is key. Once I figured out how to overcome my insecurity through a process I was able to produce better designs in much less time. Learning this was tremendously valuable in the fast-paced agency world where, “we need a solid design concept by 10am tomorrow” is all to common.

Let’s talk specifics. What are you 3 favorite typefaces? If you could add/remove any feature in Photoshop what would it be? What music do you listen to when working?

Like most designers my favorite typefaces evolve over time, and often when I start noticing one of my favorites everywhere I know it’s time to move onto a new typeface—looking at you Archer. Narrowing down my favorites to three, I would have to go with Vitesse by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Bryant 2 Pro and Klavika / Klavika Condensed both by Process Type Foundry.

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The one major change that I would love to see in Photoshop is integration with the web font services. For example I would love to be able to add a Typekit ID in Photoshop to access and use fonts from my kit in design comps. I would even be glad to pay an additional premium to have access to the fonts in Photoshop. The biggest challenge to adding a feature like this is likely a legal and licensing issue versus an engineering.

The last two changes are fairly minor, but are inspired by the way that AfterEffects works. Photoshop needs the ability to stack and sort multiple layer styles on a layer. Right now if I want to use multiple strokes, or any other layer style, I have to duplicate the layer, set the fill to zero and apply the second layer style on the duplicate layer above. Also, I would love to see an option to use a dark UI similar to AfterEffects or even Lightroom.

If I could remove anything from Photoshop... Bridge. Who really uses Bridge? Any time I accidentally trigger Bridge it’s always a race to see how fast I can force quit the application.

Music plays a huge role in my daily workflow, and I always have something playing through my speakers or my noise-isolating earphones (Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10). Most days I have Rdio open in a browser and run through a number of genres and styles of music. Since my taste in music evolves with my mood and the type of project I’m working on I love the freedom of a music subscription service to keep things fresh.

Looking at last week I listened to quite a bit of Yeasayer - Odd Blood, The Naked and Famous - Passive Me, Aggressive You, TV On The Radio - Nine Types of Light, and Mother Mother - EUREKA. Right now while writing this interview I’m listening to Four Tet - There Is Love In You. I can almost guarantee you that next week will sound completely different. Over time I have added to a playlist, Genius Juice, with tracks that really fuel my inspiration.

Describe your work day (hours & rituals you keep) and your work environment (how your workstation is set up & what you office is like).

For years I would pull all-nighters or late nights (at least 3am) once or twice a week. I was even proud of it and wore it like a badge of honor. This was partially fed by culture that exists in many agencies and studios, also it seemed like I was more inspired late into the night. Now I realize that the late nights lead to very unproductive days where it became easier to waste time on Twitter or browsing the internet for far too long. I was simply trading my days for nights, and in the process sacrificing time in the mornings and evenings with my wife and kids.

After numerous attempts to make the switch to become a morning and cutting out late nights, I finally decided to do it after reading Matthew Smith’s post on The Old Man Schedule. Now every day my alarm goes off at 5:00am. By 5:15am I’m downstairs eating breakfast and reading before starting my day. From 5:30am to 7:30am is when I focus in on the main task of the day since I’m usually highly productive during these two hours. At 7:30am I shut down the computer spend time with my kids making them breakfast, chatting and playing with them. By 8:30am I head out the door to the office to start my normal work day. Right at 5:00pm I wrap up all my work for the day and head home. The rest of the evening is spent with family, and I try to make sure that my laptop stays in my bag until the next morning. Now for the ‘old man’ portion of the schedule... I’m in bed most night by 10:00pm.

After three weeks of the new early schedule can say that I have had some of my most productive weeks. My mornings and days are focused on getting work done and evenings and nights on spending time with family and recharging for the next day.

During my time in the office I usually work in a series of ‘90 minute’ sprints throughout the day. For sprint I will shut down email, Twitter, and any other distractions so that I can focus on one or two tasks uninterrupted. After each of the sprints I recover by getting up from my desk, going outside, spending some time on Twitter or even writing a post for my blog. My entire work day is now built around the idea of expending and renewing energy.

As far as a my work environment it’s currently in transition. Three weeks ago I moved to a larger office space in Mission Viejo, CA that gives me the room to grow New Ezra and Style Hatch adding two or three new employees. After working with contractors all over the world I’m looking forward to bringing a few talented people in-house. Already the space is starting to take shape with the furniture, but as you can see in the images the walls are bare and need artwork. Any suggestions?

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Show us an image of the most inspiring thing you’ve seen this week.

For this week I have to go with the “cinemagraphs”—more than a photo, but not quite video—that Jamie (photographer/designer) of From Me to You recently captured of the talented model Coco Rocha. Basically these images are the sophisticated and grown up version of an animated GIF. Check out more of the cinemagraphs of Coco Rocha.

Thank you Jonathan for taking the time to talk with us.

It really was a pleasure! I’m excited to see how Method & Craft will grow and evolve over time.

Jonathan Moore's Work
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